Western Medicine has generally shunned the connection of emotions on the physical body. But new research at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), a team led by a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Elizabeth Blackburn has gained a new understanding of the aging process by examining the life cycles of jellyfish.
Blackburn sequenced the chromosome tips of a single-celled freshwater creature called Tetrahymena (“pond scum”, as she describes it) and discovered a repeating DNA pattern that acts as a protective cap. The caps, dubbed telomeres, were subsequently found on human chromosomes too. They shield the ends of our chromosomes each time our cells divide and the DNA is copied, but they wear down with each division. In the 1980s, working with graduate student Carol Greider at the University of California, Berkeley, Blackburn discovered an enzyme called telomerase that can protect and rebuild telomeres. Even so, our telomeres dwindle over time. And when they get too short, our cells start to malfunction and lose their ability to divide – a phenomenon that is now recognized as a key process in aging. This work ultimately won Blackburn the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Researchers have since linked perceived stress to shorter telomeres in healthy women as well as in Alzheimer’s caregivers, victims of domestic abuse and early life trauma, and people with major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Lab studies show that the stress hormone cortisol reduces the activity of telomerase, while oxidative stress and inflammation – the physiological fallout of psychological stress – appear to erode telomeres directly. Researcher point out that stress increases the risk of chronic disease later in life. And several studies have shown that our telomeres predict future health.
One of the most effective methods apparently capable of slowing the erosion of telomeres – and perhaps even lengthening them again – is meditation.
There are a few studies which suggest meditation lengthens telomeres. After a three-month meditation course, participants had 30 per cent higher levels of telomerase than a similar group on a waiting list. A pilot study of dementia caregivers, carried out with UCLA’s Irwin and published in 2013, found that volunteers who did an ancient chanting meditation called Kirtan Kriya, 12 minutes a day for eight weeks, had significantly higher telomerase activity than a control group who listened to relaxing music. And a collaboration with UCSF physician and self-help guru Dean Ornish, also published in 2013, found that men with low-risk prostate cancer who undertook comprehensive lifestyle changes, including meditation, kept their telomerase activity higher than similar men in a control group and had slightly longer telomeres after five years.
All this increases in telomerase activity is bound to have an impact on telomere health. But the critics are still on the fence. Many don’t want to touch this subject “People are very uncomfortable with the concept of meditation,” notes Blackburn.
Any connotation of religious or paranormal beliefs makes many scientists uneasy, says Chris French, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, who studies anomalous experiences including altered states of consciousness. “There are a lot of raised eyebrows, even though I’ve got the word sceptic virtually tattooed across my forehead,” he says. “It smacks of new-age woolly ideas for some people. There’s a kneejerk dismissive response of ‘we all know it’s nonsense, why are you wasting your time?’”
But more evidence is coming out which scientists cannot refute. A growing body of work now shows that the stress from social adversity and inequality is a major force eroding our protective caps. People who didn’t finish high school or are in an abusive relationship have shorter telomeres, for example, while studies have also shown links with low socioeconomic status, shift work, lousy neighborhoods and environmental pollution. Children are particularly at risk: being abused or experiencing adversity early in life leaves people with shorter telomeres for the rest of their lives. And through telomeres, the stress that women experience during pregnancy affects the health of the next generation too, causing hardship and economic costs for decades to come.
Simply responding to the physical symptoms of disease might make sense for treating an acute infection or fixing a broken leg, but to beat chronic age-related conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and dementia, we will need to embrace the study of meditation and its effects on the mind.
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